To fully represent the image of the 2010 Mercedes S-Class, I'm writing this review from a Mexican lakeside villa. I've got opera music wafting in the background and a view of the mountains ahead. One part of the mountain is on fire, but never mind that. This is the S-Class lifestyle you read about in dealer brochures - relaxed and richly appointed, yet subtle enough not to attract too much attention.
I'm on vacation, two hours west of Mexico City, next to some of the best back roads the world has to offer. I'm glad I don't have a car. Had I followed these roads back to la capital in a $107,000 Mercedes, I would have written "Carjack Me" on my forehead. Mercedes would tell you the same thing. In March, they paid the Mexican federal police to protect journalists driving a convoy of $200,000 SLS "Gullwings." Any luxury car, especially a huge one like our S550 tester, doesn't hide well here.
In the U.S., no one gets stirred up at the sight of an S-Class sedan. They're the anonymous black cars favored by Goldman Sachs executives and other big suits in need of a quick, private escape. Driving one, let alone riding in its bedroom of a back seat, lets you turn off reality. The actual world - sirens, trucks, the unemployed - is but a few millimeters of double-paned glass away, yet it stays outside. If you smothered your face with pillows and jammed in a pair of earplugs, you could achieve a similar effect in the Nissan Cube.
What's not easily mimicked is the adjustable air suspension - also pillow-like, but controlled - or the front seats with side bolsters that inflate as you round bends, keeping your torso straight. While you're at it, you might as well order up a back massage, heated or chilled. Of the four choices displayed on the main LCD panel, I take mine "Fast and Vigorous." Do enough short sales to tick off the SEC, and you may want it "Slow and Gentle" instead.
Most times the 5.5-liter V-8 acts accordingly, loafing this 4,630-pound sedan along through a sedate 7-speed automatic. Gear changes are imperceptible, until you nail the throttle, commanding a 7-to-3 shift to bring all 382 horsepower on tap. It's enough to hustle this 17-foot-long car to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, impressive until you're near another S-Class with the letters "AMG" spanked on the back. That's proof of 500, or even 600-plus horsepower under the hood.
In Germany, Mercedes offers a "badge delete" option that strips the model designation off the trunk lid. It's a nod to European socialism, so factory workers won't key the CEO's 12-cylinder S65 AMG, thinking it could be a base S350 with the turbodiesel six. The S350 owner, sans badge, can also pretend he's in a model costing $20,000 more, merely by upgrading his rims.
But in America we like to show off our labels. You don't work 80 hours a week on Wall Street to be equal with the next luxury sedan.
Or any car, for that matter. Xenon headlamps and two thin sets of LED strips - the top for parking and turn signals, the bottom as marker lamps - pierce into every rearview mirror on I-84 on my two-hour trip from central Connecticut to Boston. As airline pilots like to say, I was "making time," the radar cruise control set to repel every car out of the left lane. They obeyed.
I switched on the night vision controls, which helped me see beyond the car's far-reaching swath of blue-white light. It's neat to see the analog speedometer - actually a widescreen, customizable LCD display - transform into a black-and-white infrared scan, but at highway speeds it confuses your depth perception. The camera is zoomed ahead, which makes everything appear slower. Look up at the windshield and back down again and you'll get disoriented. On the BMW 7 Series, the night vision is less intense and easier to watch, but neither car projects this image on the windshield, where it has potential to be the least distracting.
Other necessities include a power-closing trunk, motors that seal the doors should you close them too softly, and quad-zone climate control with power-reclining rear seats. Yet it's the obsessive details that distinguish the S-Class from competitors. The rear headrests - which can cradle your neck like those on an airplane - rise automatically with the click of a seat belt.
Instead of a rotary dial that keeps turning, the one on the Mercedes center console has stop points that adapt to every menu on the infotainment system. If you have only three radio presets, for example, the dial will only click three times. Browse an iPod with 571 songs and it'll be 571 clicks to the end. From that dial you can set a separate temperature for the front foot wells and choose how rear passengers should breathe.
That last one was particularly useful when my girlfriend's Golden Retriever, Jack, started panting. Too hot, buddy? Just a few twists and Jack got his desired temperature, fan speed, and air direction. He fell back asleep.
While the S-Class is aging well (it was last redesigned in 2007), newer competitors like the 2011 Audi A8 have emerged. In a nod to fuel economy, they're all getting more horsepower from less engine displacement. Their navigation and multimedia systems are less cluttered by the hard-to-find, sometimes duplicated menus in this car. Even $20,000 Fords have superior voice recognition, and the same can be said for every luxury brand.
For the price, a Lexus LS 600hL is a better buy. It's equally cavernous, just as quiet, parks itself, and comes as a hybrid. But it doesn't drive as sweet as a BMW 750Li, nor does it look as good. The Benz makes a terrific compromise, straddling the line between Lexus isolation and BMW involvement. Plus, it carries Maybach presence for a third of the cost.
No reason to be humble, señor.